Dear Reader, I thought I’d share with you my tale from Underdog Anthology VII…
*Fanks, Clicky… /pats snout… Be ready at the end with a Song…*
by Roo B. Doo
Caroline Kempton-Truss closed the slim, pink folder in front of her, and placed it on the stack of coloured folders in her tray, ready for filing. Her desk was neatly spartan, like the rest of her office. She preferred to keep her surroundings like her thinking – lean, clean and tidy; everything in its right place. As the Local Authority’s newly appointed Director of Public Health, she fully intended to encourage her way of thinking throughout the workforce.
She gazed out of the picture window at the car park below. A steady stream of employees were leaving for the Christmas break already, tightly wrapped up against the bitter winds that swirled around the building regardless of the time of year. To Caroline they looked like ants – a slack army of fat ants that merely required whipping into shape. Now that the January health campaign was complete and ready to roll, she felt content to start their transformation.
There was a soft rap on the door behind her. Caroline returned to her desk and sat down, smoothing the crease in her tailored trousers as she crossed her legs. “Come in.”
Her secretary, Natalie, opened the office door and stepped inside. “Hi Caroline. I was wondering if I could possibly leave now. I have accrued sufficient overtime.”
Caroline looked at the slim, gold watch on her wrist. “It’s only two o’clock.”
“Yes, but it’s Christmas Eve,” Natalie spluttered nervously, “and the offices are closing early today at four anyway.” She hopped from foot to foot. “Plus it’s very quiet out there. It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Yes, I know it’s Christmas Eve,” Caroline snapped, immediately regretted her tone at Natalie’s flinch. Velvet glove, Caroline, she reminded herself, Velvet glove. “Of course. Yes of course you can leave early, Nat, but come and sit down first. I have a couple of things I need to talk to you about.”
Natalie closed the office door and sat down dutifully next to Caroline’s desk, hands tightly gripped in her lap. “Should I go fetch my pad and pen?”
“Good thinking, but not necessary,” Caroline replied, sliding open the bottom drawer of her desk. “This is for you. Merry Christmas,” she continued, handing over a cellophane wrapped basket filled with tubs and bottles, nestled in straw. “Smellies. They’re all natural and sustainably produced.”
Natalie sniffed the cellophane package gingerly. “Oh yes, I can tell,” she said, blushing, and placed the basket under her chair. “I’m sorry but I didn’t get you anything.”
“That’s okay.” Caroline leaned back in her desk chair and surveyed the secretary she’d inherited when she’d taken the job. Natalie was efficient, attentive and punctual; everything she could wish for in a PA. Her extensive knowledge of Local Authority protocol and procedures was a boon for Caroline’s ambitions. But Natalie was irredeemably flawed in Caroline’s eyes: she was a mess in need of fixing. “How old are you, Nat?”
Natalie raised her eyebrows at the bluntness of the question. “Oh.” She shifted in her seat, deciding to sit on her hands. “Um, well I’m going to be forty-five tomorrow.”
Now Caroline felt uncomfortable; she thought Natalie looked much older. “Tomorrow? Your birthday’s tomorrow?”
“Yes, that’s why my parents called me Natalie. Because I was born on Christmas Day.”
“Oh well, very many happy returns for tomorrow.” Caroline smiled broadly but thought, Forty-five? You look at least ten years older. Perfect. “Nat, I hope you don’t think me rude but you are exactly the type I’d like us to hit, and hit hard, with the ‘New You’ health campaign for January.”
“How do you mean?” Natalie asked, her eyes narrowing. “You want another secretary to look after you?”
“No, not at all,” Caroline exclaimed, realising her gaffe. She attempted to reign in the situation. “You’re brilliant, Nat. No, I was thinking more broadly about middle-aged women in general. You know, too busy working and maintaining families to have time to look after themselves properly. No time to cut out the vices that, they wrongly believe, help them to cope.”
“But I don’t drink or smoke,” Natalie replied cautiously, “and I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.”
“Ah but you do vape.” Caroline licked her lips. “I’ve seen you downstairs in the car park at lunchtimes. The vapour clouds those things make are hard to miss.”
Natalie cocked her head to one side and gnawed at her bottom lip. “But vaping helped me quit, Caroline. Without it, I’d still be smoking twenty a day.”
“And it’s commendable that you’ve quit smoking, it really is. Tobacco is the worst,” Caroline said emphatically. She herself had tried smoking once at college but the taste disgusted her, so she had no trouble in not taking it up. “But when you’ve gone through the pain and strife of kicking one disgusting vice, why replace it with another?”
Natalie shook her head. “I don’t think of vaping as disgusting. I find it relaxing and it’s much safer than smoking.”
“Ah but the jury is still out on its safety, Nat. When smoking first became popular, the long-term health problems it causes weren’t known. In fact smoking was promoted as a good thing. The same could be true of vaping. We just don’t know.” Caroline re-crossed her legs, again smoothing the crease of her trousers. It was a sound argument, regardless of her personal view of the practice.
Natalie continued gnawing her lip. “And it would only be for January?”
“Yes!” Caroline smacked her hand flat against the surface of her barren desk. “Exactly. For the ‘New You’ campaign. Think of it in terms of Caesar’s Wife.”
“Yes. It means to be seen to be above reproach. Look at it this way – how can we persuade the public to change their ways if we are not prepared to do it ourselves?”
Natalie’s lowered gaze flick up toward the office door. “I will think about it over Christmas.”
“Don’t think, Nat. Do!” Caroline chuckled. “‘Do for the New You’. It is the campaign’s strapline after all.”
“Okay,” Natalie murmured. “Is there anything else or can I go now?”
“Well,” Caroline mused, “You eat an awful lot of red meat. Bacon sandwiches at your desk for breakfast several times a week. I’m vegan, but fortunately I can tolerate the smell. Others though might find it too enticing – going vegetarian is one of the key planks of the ‘New You’ campaign.” Caroline could tell from the look on Natalie’s face that she was still sceptical but ploughed on regardless. “It would really help others around you if the bacon butties could be knocked on the head for the month as well.”
Natalie stood up. “No, I mean is there anything else you need me to do before I can go home?”
“Oh sure, well just this filing, thanks.” Caroline grabbed the stack of folders from her tray and handed them over to Natalie. “And then you can go. As the Duty Officer until we close up at four, I’ll be here for a couple of hours yet. There’s no rest for the wicked, eh?”
“No.” Natalie turned to leave. “Merry Christmas, Caroline.”
“You too. And have a very happy birthday, Nat. I look forward to seeing a ‘New You’ in the New Year.”
After Natalie had left, Caroline turned her attention back to the scene outside her window and contemplated how the conversation with Natalie had gone. True, she hadn’t got a firm commitment from her, but Caroline felt confident that it had gone pretty well, despite the shaky start. Every journey starts with a single step, she reassured herself smugly.
The sky was already starting to darken and the stream of departing employees had turned into a trickle. Soon I’ll be the only person left, Caroline thought and stifled a yawn. She decided that a brisk walk around the emptying building would liven her up. Stopping only to pick up her mobile phone, Caroline left her office.
Her stroll took her through several desolate floors of the building. She sighed and tutted at the desk clutter on display, safe in the knowledge that hardly anybody was still around to see her displeasure. Caroline passed bank after bank of desks that heaved with paperwork, tacky personal effects and garish Christmas decorations. The kitchenette areas on each of the floors told their own horror story. Sweet tins full of uneaten cakes and biscuits were piled high on counters, just waiting for staff to return after the break. The fridges were no better, packed as they were with plastic milk bottles, all at varying levels of emptiness, marked with each owner’s initials in thick, black ink. This whole place is infected, she thought disdainfully, I’ll have my work cut out for me here.
It was just past four o’clock by the time Caroline returned to the deserted Public Health department. With everybody else gone, the overhead lighting had switched off automatically, and the floor felt abandoned. Caroline shivered and wondered if the heating had also been turned off. She walked smartly back to her office, glad that she could finally pack her things up to go home, but when she got there, it wasn’t empty.
“Nat?” Caroline stopped in the doorway and called to the shadowy figure, looking out of the window. “What are you doing standing in the dark. I thought you’d already left.”
“I had,” Natalie replied. She turned her head toward Caroline. “But I forgot to take my Christmas present, so I walked back.” She pointed at the cellophane basket still sitting under the chair next to the desk. “And I also have a gift for you.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Caroline chided with a smile. The flutter of concern Caroline had felt on spying a shadowy figure in her darkened office had dissipated to be replaced with warm glow of acceptance. She decide to push her luck. “You know, your active participation in the New Year campaign would be present enough.”
Natalie shrugged and turned her head back to view outside the window. “Look. The Moon is rising. It’s not quite full.”
Caroline joined Natalie at the window. “Oh yes.” Caroline smiled, “Thank God it’s not a full Moon. The last thing anyone needs on Christmas Eve is a werewolf on the rampage.”
“Yeah,” Natalie laughed softly. “It’s a fiction created by Hollywood, you know.”
“What is? The Moon or werewolves?”
“Oh the Moon is real, but so are werewolves. The first has no effect on the other though. Except in the movies.”
“Really? How do you know that?” Caroline checked her wristwatch; it was all very well chitchatting with staff but time was ticking on. She moved away to collect her handbag and coat.
Natalie didn’t move. “In Poland, where my grandparents came from, there is a long tradition of werewolves, and many legends. Practically the whole of eastern Europe has them. And none of them involve the cycles of the Moon as far as I can tell. Still, everyone believes it does.”
Caroline pulled on her coat and started buttoning it. “Have you made a study of it?” she asked distractedly.
“A little because of my birthday. According to Polish myth, werewolves are born on Christmas Day. It’s an affront to God or something.” Natalie turned to Caroline and grinned. “I’m not one, by the way,” she said, holding up her hands.
“That’s good to know,” Caroline said, belting up her coat and hoisting the strap of her handbag over her shoulder. “Well, I think it’s time we pushed off. Do you live very far from here? I can give you a lift.”
“Not far, but no.” Natalie retrieved the gift basket from under the chair and joined Caroline at the door. “I’m meeting my brother downstairs. Actually there’s something I wanted to ask you about.”
“Sure. Let’s walk and talk.” Caroline led the way through the darkened office to the brightly lit lift lobby. She pressed the button to call for a lift and smiled at Natalie. “What’s on your mind?”
Natalie watched the progress of the lift’s journey up from the ground floor on the electronic display above its doors. “It’s about what you said earlier and Caesar’s wife. Is that going to be in effect for all our health campaigns from now on, or just the ‘New You’ one?”
“Ideally, yes-” A whistling howl of racing wind filling the lift shaft interrupted Caroline’s reply. She grimaced at the noise. “Leading by example is so important, I think.” The lift arrived and she ushered Natalie to get in first. “At the very least I’d like us to be seen to be practicing what we preach.” She hit the button for the ground floor.
“Like a religion?” Natalie asked slowly, gnawing softly on her bottom lip.
“Well no, but in many ways, yes.” Caroline tittered at the analogy; she hadn’t thought of Public Health quite like that before, but now that she had, she rather liked it; she would use it in the future. “Our bodies are temples after all.”
They reached the ground floor and started toward the exit to the car park. Caroline’s elegant heels click-clacked on the polished stone floor as she crossed the Reception area. A lone security guard sat behind the counter, looking bored. “Merry Christmas,” she called to him as she passed.
Natalie stopped at the counter, placing the gift basket on it. “Hey Caroline!” she shouted at the retreating figure of her boss. “Caroline. Have you met my twin brother Gene?”
Caroline stopped and walked back to Natalie and the guard, who was prodding at the gift basket with his finger, nose wrinkled.
“I didn’t know your brother worked here, Nat,” she said, apprehensively. She’d barely paid the security guard any attention before, but now that she looked, she could see the resemblance between him and Natalie. He was darker and hairier than her, but they had the same eyes. “So it’s your birthday tomorrow as well? What time will you be finishing?”
“Tomorrow,” Gene replied sullenly.
“Oh well. Happy birthday for tomorrow anyway.” Caroline nodded and turned to leave. “To both of you. And have a lovely Christmas.” Pleasantries concluded, and with the exit in sight, all she wanted to do was leave.
“Caroline’s a vegan, Gene.” Natalie’s voice rung out clearly across reception. “She wants us to give up eating meat for the New Year.”
Caroline stopped in her tracks. “Now Natalie…” She turned and was enveloped in a cloud of steam.
“And vaping,” Natalie said drawing on her vape contraption and releasing another cloud of steam in Caroline’s direction. “She’s thinking of starting a religion.”
“What? Another one?” Gene sneered. “Is there a fucking seminary, churning out Public Health priests?”
Caroline held her breath and batted the vapour cloud away. She was lost for words and perplexed at the sudden change in her secretary; she’d never encountered such insubordination before. “You’re not allowed-”
“Not allowed?” Natalie roared, interrupting Caroline. “I’m not allowed to vape inside? Why not? There’s nobody else here.” She turned to her brother. “Is anybody else left in the building, Gene?”
Gene’s jaw jerked forwards several times, as if it was trying to leave his face. “No, sis. Just us,” he barked and gnashed his teeth. “They made sure they all left in good time,” he croaked.
“Now look here-” Caroline was interrupted again, this time by Gene falling off his chair, his body convulsing violently. “Oh my god! Is he okay? Natalie?!”
Natalie peered serenely over the reception counter. “Yeah, he’s fine. He’ll just be a second.” She turned her attention back to Caroline. “But you might not be,” she said coldly. “That’s up to you.”
Caroline’s mouth flapped silently. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing or hearing. The sound of tortured whines and yelps coming from behind the desk hurt her ears. The stretching, cracking and snapping noises were turning her legs to jelly. “I… I… I…”
“That’s right,” Natalie spat, “it’s all about you, isn’t it Caroline? You want to turn everybody into an replica image of you because you’re so wonderful.” She blew another cloud of vape in her boss’s direction. “Don’t think the rest of us here don’t know what you’re up to. The way you constantly judge us. We’ve seen it all before. And to be frank, we’re fucking tired of it.”
A maleficent howl reverberated around the empty reception lobby. Caroline’s bladder gave way, as did her legs, and she collapsed to the floor with a sodden thump. She sobbed in horror as the howling suddenly stopped, to be replace by a deeply sinister growl. What is happening? her mind whimpered.
Natalie crouched down next to the quaking Caroline. She put her arm around her back and held her upright. “It was funny you mentioning werewolves earlier. It must be your obsession with transformation that made you think of it. Time for your gift, I think.”
She lifted the shaking woman to her feet and walked her closer to the reception desk. Pulling up Caroline’s coat sleeve to reveal her trembling arm, Natalie gave three sharp whistles. A snarling maw appeared.
“I like you Caroline. I don’t want to have to kill you like all the rest,” Natalie cooed. “They’ll just install another knob, exactly like you, to try and change us.” She gave another whistle, low and long.
Caroline shrieked in pain and terror as Gene’s slavering jaws clamped around her arm. She felt a viscous pooling of blood and saliva on the desktop beneath her arm. She screamed again.
Natalie smacked Gene’s snout firmly and whistled again. Caroline’s arm fell limply from his jaws and he backed away, growling and licking his chops.
“That, Caroline, is your Christmas gift from me and the rest of your work colleagues,” Natalie whispered fiercely into her ear. “Transformation. You are going to be amazed at how different the ‘New You’ will be next month.”